Spiritual Strengthening


Eph. 3:14-19, especially 16:—"That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, that ye may be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inward man."

This certainly may be fairly called one of the great passages of the Bible. Note the series of great topics which are adverted to in it: the inward strengthening of the children of God by the Holy Ghost, the continual abiding of Christ in their hearts, their rooting and grounding in love, their enlargement in spiritual apprehension, even to the knowledge of the unknowable, their filling with all the fullness of God. Surely here is a catalogue of great things for God's people! These great topics do not lie on one level, however, set side by side as parallel facts, but are exhibited in special relations the one to the other. Paul is praying here for these high blessings to descend on the Ephesian Christians. But he does not pray for them simply as a bunch of blessings, arbitrarily selected to be on this occasion sought at the great Father's hands—the Father of these Ephesian Christians too, because He is the God of the Gentiles as well as of the Jews, and from Him every fatherdom derives its name. Here are rather a connected body of blessings which go naturally together, one being the ground and another the effect of the one great thing he craves for his readers.

The central thing he prays for is spiritual strengthening. "I bow my knees to the Father that He may give to you to be strengthened by His Spirit in respect to the inner man." Spiritual strengthening, then, that is the main thing that he prays for. By the mere term "spiritual strengthening" two things might be suggested to us. We might think of spiritual as distinguished from physical strengthening. Or we might think of strengthening by the Spirit as distinguished from some earthly agency. The Apostle's prayer includes both ideas. He prays that we may be strengthened in the inner man; that is, for the strengthening of our spirit, in distinction from the body. And he prays that we may be strengthened with respect to the inner man by God's Spirit; that is, for the Divine strengthening of our inward man. And this, I say, is the substance of his prayer—that we may be strengthened with respect to the inner man by the Spirit of God. All else is descriptive of this and tells us what it is, and what it results in; and so enhances our idea of what spiritual strengthening is.

First, Paul tells us somewhat further what it is. It is identical, he tells us, with the abiding of Christ by faith in our hearts. Of course it is not absolutely certain what the relation of this second clause is to its predecessor. It might express the aim or end of the spiritual strengthening, or (what comes to practically the same thing) its result, as well as (as we should take it), its more precise explanation. As it is followed by a series of expressly telic clauses, formally introduced by the proper telic particle, it would seem most natural to take it as epexegetical of the preceding clause. "I bow my knees to the Father, . . . that He may give to you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might as to the inner man—to wit, that Christ may abide in your hearts by faith." To be sure, the sense would not be essentially different if we took it otherwise—to the end that, or so that, Christ may abide in your hearts by faith. In the one case it tells what the spiritual strengthening consists in—it is identical with the abiding of Christ in the heart; in the other, what it eventuates in,—it issues in the abiding of Christ in the heart. In either case the thing to be noted is that it is not the coming of Christ into the heart that is spoken of, but His abiding in the heart; and that it is just this idea that receives the emphasis in the sentence, the position of the words being such as to throw a strong stress on "abiding."

Two things result from this. The first is, that Christ is supposed to have already entered the hearts of those whom the Apostle is praying for. It is not a question of His coming but of His abiding. The Apostle is not praying that his readers should be converted; but, presuming their conversion, that they may be spiritually strengthened. The second result is that the spiritual strengthening is contingent on, or let us rather say, is dependent on the abiding presence of Christ in their hearts. The indwelling Christ is the source of the Christian's spiritual strength. This is, of course, not to set aside the Holy Spirit. But he has read his New Testament to little purpose who would separate the Holy Spirit and Christ: Christ abides in the heart by the Spirit. The indwelling of the Holy Ghost is the means of the indwelling of Christ and the two are one and the same great fact. We are strengthened in the inner man with might by the Holy Spirit, because by the operation of the Spirit in our hearts, Christ abides there—thus and not otherwise. And here we learn then the source of the Christian's strength. Christ is the ultimate source. His indwelling is the ground of all our strength. But it is only by the Spirit—the executive of the Godhead in this sphere too—that Christ dwells in the heart. It is the Spirit that strengthens us, and He so strengthens us that He gives us "might" in our inner man. The way He does this is by forming Christ within us.

The Apostle is one of the most fecund writers extant, and thus it happens that he does not leave the matter even there. It is by the Spirit that Christ dwells in us—that is the objective fact.

But there is a subjective fact too, and the Apostle does not fail to touch it—it is by our faith, too, that Christ dwells in us. "That Christ may abide in your hearts by your faith," he says. He does not say "by faith" merely, though he might well have said that, and it would have covered the whole necessary idea. But, in his habitual fullness of expression, he puts in the article, and thus implies that he recognizes their faith as already existent. They are Christians, they already believe, Christ is already dwelling in them by faith; he prays that He may abide in them by their faith. The stress is everywhere laid on continuance. May God strengthen your inner man, he says, by His Spirit. That is to say, he adds, may that Christ whom ye have received into your hearts by faith abide continuously in your hearts by that faith of yours. As much as to say, Christ is brought into your hearts by the Holy Ghost. He abides there by that Holy Ghost. May God thus continually strengthen your hearts by His Spirit, and that, even with might. I pray to Him for it, for it is He that gives it. But do not think, therefore, that you may lose hold on Christ. It is equally true that He abides in your hearts by your faith. When faith fails, so do the signs of His presence within: the strengthening of the Spirit and the steady burning of the flame of faith are correlative. As well expect the thermometer to stand still with the temperature varying as the height of your faith not to index the degree of your strength. Your strength is grounded in the indwelling Christ, wrought by the Spirit by means of faith.

Thus we have laid before us the sources of the Christian's strength. It is rooted in Christ, the Christ within us, abiding there by virtue of the Spirit's action quickening and upholding faith in us. And only as by the Spirit our faith is kept firm and clear, will Christ abide in us, and will we accordingly be strong in the inner man.

Such then is the nature and source of the Christian's strengthening. What does it issue in? How does it exhibit itself? Briefly, the Apostle tells us, in love and knowledge. "May God grant you," he says, "to be strengthened as to the inner man by His Spirit, that is, the abiding presence of Christ in your hearts, to the end that being rooted and grounded in love, you may be fully enabled to apprehend. ..." The end of the prayer is, then, expansion of spiritual apprehension. May God grant that you may be strengthened with might ... to the end that you may be full of strength to apprehend. The appropriate result of strengthening is that they may have full strength. The Apostle accumulates words expressive of strength to enhance the idea. He uses three separate words, but all impinging on the one idea, that he wishes his readers by the Holy Spirit's operations to be raised to the capacity of spiritual apprehension indicated. "God grant that ye may be empowered (relative and manifested power) with might (inherent general power), with which ye may have full strength (as your own endowment) to apprehend. ..." This then is the proximate end of the prayer: Expansion of heart for the apprehension of spiritual things. "God grant that you may be strengthened with might by the Holy Spirit in the inner man, that you may have full strength to apprehend. ..." These things to be apprehended are too great for man's natural powers He must have new strength from on high given him to compass them. He may by the Spirit be raised to a higher potency of apprehension for them. God grant it to you!

What are these things? The Apostle speaks quite generally about them. He says "that ye may have full strength to apprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth. ..." His mind is for the moment not on the thing itself but on the bigness of the thing. It is because the thing is so big that they need strengthening in the inner man before they have full strength to apprehend it. Yet it is not something for these special readers alone, but for all Christians. This strengthening the Apostle asks for is the heritage of the saints. The Apostle prays not that we may be expanded in spiritual apprehension by these great ideas, but up to them. This expanding is not to be done by them, but by the Holy Ghost. To enhance our conception of how big they are, he gives us a sample,— for that the last clause here is not adjoined as a parallel but as a subordinate clause seems indicated by the particle by which it is adjoined and as well by the concluding words "unto the whole fullness of God," which appear to return to a quite general idea: that ye may have full strength to apprehend with all saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the "knowledge-surpassing love of Christ."

Here is a sample of the broad and wide and high and deep knowledge to apprehend which we need to have our minds stretched: the quality of the love of Christ. It is too high for us; we cannot attain unto it. Do we wonder that the thing the Apostle prays for is that we should be strengthened in the inner man by the Spirit of God, that we may have full strength to apprehend this? Do we wonder that he speaks of this and such knowledge as too broad and wide and high and deep for us, not to be apprehended save by him in whose heart Christ abides? If, indeed, Christ be in us—then, possibly, we may know Christ without us. But surely in no other way. Here then is the gist of the matter, as to the end of our strengthening in the inner man. It is to give us full strength for the apprehension of these great and incomparable mysteries of our faith.

But in that fullness of the Apostolic speech to which we have already alluded, Paul does not content himself with simply saying this. He so says it as both to suggest an intermediate step in the attainment of this large spiritual apprehension, and to indicate a still higher goal. He suggests, I say, an intermediate step. He does not say simply, "God grant you spiritual strengthening, that you may have enlarged spiritual apprehension." He says, "God grant you spiritual strengthening that, having been rooted and grounded in love, you may have enlarged spiritual apprehension." Here then is an intermediate link between the strengthening by the Spirit and the enlargement of our spiritual understanding. It is "love." The proximate effect of the Spirit's work in empowering the inner man with might is not knowledge but love; and the proximate cause of our enlarged spiritual apprehension is not the strengthening of our inner man, but love. The Spirit does not immediately work this enlargement of mind in us; He immediately works love, and only through working this love, enlarges our apprehension. The Holy Ghost "sheds love abroad in our hearts." Love is the great enlarger. It is love which stretches the intellect. He who is not filled with love is necessarily small, withered, shrivelled in his outlook on life and things. And conversely he who is filled with love is large and copious in his apprehensions. Only he can apprehend with all saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth of things. The order of things in spiritual strengthening is therefore: (1) the working by the Spirit of a true faith in the heart, and the cherishing by the Spirit of this faith in a constant flame; (2) the abiding of Christ by this faith in the heart; (3) the shedding abroad of love in the soul and its firm rooting in the heart; (4) the enlargement of the spiritual apprehension to know the unknowable greatness of the things of Christ.

There is yet one further step, for even this spiritual apprehension is not its own end. "God grant," says the Apostle, "that you may be empowered with might by the Spirit, so to have full strength to apprehend the great things of God"—but he does not stop there. He adds "to the end that you may be filled unto the whole fullness of God." Here is the goal at last. And what a goal it is! We were weak—for it was "when we were without strength" that Christ died for us. We are to be strengthened, strengthened by the Spirit, by means of the constant indwelling of Christ, the source of all good. We are to be strengthened so as to know, to know the great things of God (read some of them in the parallel passage, Col. 1:11). But not that we may know for the mere sake of knowing. What good would such a bare knowing do us? We are to know that we may be "filled unto all the fullness of God." Look at this standard of fullness. "Unto"—not "with"—it is the standard, not the material. God's fullness is not to be poured into us; we are to be raised toward that standard of fullness, not in one particular but in all—unto the whole fullness of God. It may mean unto the fullness which God possesses; or it may mean unto the fullness which He provides. It may mean either that the enlargement of our spiritual apprehension is a means toward obtaining all the wonderful goods that God has in store for us; or it may mean that by it we shall be brought to a height of attainment comparable only to His attainments. No matter which it means. It is enough in either meaning for any Christian's hope. But there is no reason to doubt that it does mean the greatest thing: we shall be filled unto the whole fullness of God. We shall be like Him, and like Him only of all Beings in the universe. It is a giddy height to which our eyes are thus raised. No wonder we need spiritual strengthening to discern the summit of this peak of promise.

Of course it does not mean that we are to be transmuted into God, so that each of us will be able to assert a right to a place of equality in the universe with God. Of course, again, it does not mean that God is to be transfused into us, so that we shall be God, part of His very essence. It means just what it says, that God presents the standard towards which we, Christian men, are to be assimilated. We are to be made like Him, holy as He is holy, pure as He is pure. Our eyes, even in the depths of eternity, will seek Him towering eternally above us as our unattainable standard towards which we shall ever be ascending, but we shall be like Him; He and we shall belong to one class, the class of holy beings. We shall no longer be like the Devil, whose children we were until we were delivered from his kingdom and translated into the kingdom of God's dear Son. No more shall we be what we were as men in this world, still separated from God by a gulf of moral difference, a difference so great that we are almost tempted to call it a difference of kind and not merely of degree. Nay, we shall, perhaps, be more like God than even the holy angels are; in our head, Christ Jesus, we shall be in Him who in a pre-eminent sense is like God. The process of the "filling" may take long; it is but barely begun for most of us in this life; but that is the standard and that the goal—"we shall be filled unto the fullness of God"; and it shall never cease. Such is the goal of the spiritual strengthening spoken of in our text.